Finding a space to belong – a home at the heart of heartbreak – is a pretty common central theme, regardless of genre. The Wiz takes it up a level with its vibrant costumes, virtuoso vocal stylings, and the allure of Afrofuturism as the show graces San Diego’s Civic Theatre through January 14.
Catching a lot of buzz en route to its first Broadway revival since 1984, the production (along with a significant portion of the touring cast) is due to open at the Marriott Marquis Theatre on March 29. The story, an easily recognizable adaptation of Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, is a celebration of Black joy and liberation: the diaspora woven into Dorothy’s journey across Oz set to soul, gospel, rock, and funk.
This pre-Broadway tour features Alan Mingo Jr as The Wiz, Deborah Cox as Glinda, Melody Betts as Aunt Em and Evillene, Kyle Ramar Freeman as Lion, Phillip Johnson Richardson as Tinman, Avery Wilson as Scarecrow, and Allyson Kaye Daniel as Addaperle alongside Nichelle Lewis as ingenue Dorothy. All are exceptional, though I was particularly taken with Lewis’ command of mix, belt, and whistle tones alike, Betts’ earthy and resonant Aunt Em, and Richardson’s second act stunner, “What Would I Do If I Could Feel,” which was tender, vulnerable, and real. Kudos also go to the cast for the harmonies leading into intermission, which were spot on.
The production leads are joined onstage by a talented ensemble which includes Maya Bowles, Shayla Alayre Caldwell, Jay Copeland, Judith Franklin, Michael Samarie George, Collin Heyward, Amber Jackson, Olivia “Melo.J” Jackson, Christina Jones, Polanco Jones, Jr., Kolby Kindle, Mariah Lyttle, Kareem Marsh, Anthony Murphy, Cristina Raé, Matthew Sims, Jr., Avilon Trust Tate, Keenan D. Washington, and Timothy Wilson.
The Wiz, which features a book by William F. Brown and score by Charlie Smalls, is under the direction of Schele Williams, the choreographic design of JaQuel Knight, and music direction of Paul Byssainthe, Jr., all who know exactly what they are looking for and what to get it out of their performers, though some blocking choices are clearly intended for larger scale touring venues and the sound balance was a bit off, making it difficult to hear one or two of the songs on the evening I caught the production. I would be curious to see what changes are made and just whose sparkle catches New York’s eye when the production ultimately opens on Broadway. Certainly the intimacy will be electric for a show like this one.
The production leverages projections liberally throughout the show to not only shift locations, but also to lean into its Afrofuturist elements, and pairs striking, moving projected landscapes with roll-on set pieces that, while often simple, also have moments of surprising texture and detail (Daniel Brodie and Hannah Beachler are credited as the show’s projections and scenic designers). Standout designs include Tinman’s forest and Evillene’s gear-laden lair, as well as the lively New Orleans-inspired Munchkinland. Lighting schemes pop throughout the production, leaning into vibrant shades stretched across the color palette (Ryan J. O’Gara).
With just a handful of days left to catch the glitz, gold, and green, The Wiz fans might want to take advantage of the chance to feel a brand new day… before jetsetting to the Big Apple becomes the only option.
The Wiz runs at Broadway San Diego’s Civic Theatre through Jan. 14.